The Corner

Re: Derb On Embryos

Derb, I know you disagree, but especially given the fact we live in a world where civilized people are slouching toward (or downright advocating) infant euthanasia, appoint ethics professors who justify infanticide (Peter Singer), and can’t even admit when they’re talking about cloning human beings, etc. I think among our “sensible rules” is the rule that each individual deserves the right to life under law–one of the principles we got on paper pretty early on in the history of America (albeit at a time when we didn’t have the technology to think about the embryo much, nevermind blog about it endlessly). The drawing of an arbitrary line about when a human life is excisable and when it is not seems to a very dangerous one–with implications that are not far-off theories, but practical realities of our modern life.

I know I’m not convincing Derb, but if you’re a reader wanting more on the topic, read that old Ramesh Hoover piece RP linked to the other day.

He wrote, in part:

Our moral sentiments are an indispensable prop to our moral conduct. Many times, we can see that an injustice is being done without having to think too hard about it. But moral sentiments are not an unfailing guide to justice. Much of the task of a moral education is to train the sentiments to accord with justice. It is very easy for human beings to assume that others who do not “look like us” do not have any rights that we must respect—especially when ignoring their rights offers, or seems to offer, benefits to us. We need to think about the human embryo, not just look at it and conclude it is worthless except as an object of research.

We know that the embryo is alive, not dead or inanimate. We know that it is not just alive the way that one of our skin cells is alive: It is a distinct organism, not a part of some other organism. It has the capacity, under the right circumstances (circumstances that are in an important sense “normal”), to direct its own development from the embryonic to the fetal to the infant stages of development and beyond. And we know that this organism is human and does not belong to some other species.

We do not generally believe that the right of members of the human species to live—that is, not to be killed—depends on their size, age, location, condition of dependence, or number of limbs. Any claim that the embryo does not have a right to be protected from killing has to involve a denial of the idea that “mere” membership in the human species is enough to confer that right. That right will instead have to be posited to depend on some accidental quality that some human organisms have and others do not. Perhaps that quality is sentience or rich relationships with others or an ability to perform high-order mental functions or something else.

But whatever that something is, making the right to life depend on it creates serious problems. First, it is not just embryos who will be denied protection. Newborns can’t perform high-order mental functions either, which is why philosophers who are consistent about denying the importance of membership in the human species, such as Peter Singer, approve of infanticide. Second, these qualities vary continuously. It is impossible to identify a non-arbitrary point at which an entity would have enough of the quality in question not to be killed. Third, for the same reason, it is impossible to explain why some people do not have more or fewer basic rights than other people depending on how much of this quality they possess. The foundation of human equality is denied in principle when we allow some members of the human species to be treated as mere things.

The whole RP thing is here.


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